Many of the Holy Days of Obligation once listed by the Catholic Church have seen their celebration moved to the nearest Sunday, in part to insure that the faithful community is in attendance for the most significant liturgies such as The Most Holy Body and Blood of Christ (Corpus Christi) and The Ascension of the Lord, and are observed that way in the Archdiocese of Santa Fe and most US dioceses.
However, the three feasts on the list which commemorate the Blessed Virgin Mary remain in place with designated annual dates: her Immaculate Conception (Dec 8) and her Assumption into heaven (Aug 15), and the New Years Day Mass, the Solemnity of Mary the Most Holy Mother of God. Mary is the most represented saint on the Church calendar. According to the Catholic Book Publishing Co edition of “Lives of the Saints,” only April and June pass without a specified feast day for the Blessed Mother. Not all recorded apparitions of Mary have liturgies, or there would be no months without giving her honor and recognition.
This vast array of dates and appearances serves to remind the faithful of Mary’s importance to the Church from the beginning…her beginning, not the Church’s. They remind one of how she was called by God even before birth, just as everyone else is called to a unique life, and how she continued to hold his favor throughout her life. The many appearances underscore the urgency of her message. She has taught, healed, encouraged, and blessed, but she has also warned of the fallacy human lives pursue. In so saying, she is the perfect disciple of our Lord.
Catholic tradition tells that God always protected Mary and planned for her, whether it be in the Gospel of her birth, the Protevangelion, or the Mystical City by María of Ágreda. The story of Our Lady of Loreto, or more precisely, about the House of Mary’s birth and the Annunciation demonstrates the extent in which God will go to protect and preserve her holy legacy.
The house had been recognized for its history in the earliest apostolic tradition and was always considered a holy place, often called the Holy House of Nazareth. In the early fourth century, Roman Emperor Constantine built a basilica over it, possibly at the prompting of his mother St Helena, who excavated Holy Land sites. It was not until around 1090 that the church was attacked and demolished. The pillagers were Saracens, an early European name for desert-dwelling Muslims who were not all Arabs. Their mission was to eliminate all signs of the Christians.
Despite the plundering, the holy house remained untouched. In a hundred years another basilica would be standing over it, but within another hundred, would again be destroyed, that time by Muslims as they drove the Christians from Palestine during the Crusades. It was then that the house seemed to disappear from the Holy Lands. It ended up at Terrsato, Italy (now in Croatia), where it had been carried in tact and set down perfectly by angels flying over land and sea.
The townsfolk were glad to have what seemed to be a religious relic appear in their midst, but didn’t know what to do about it until the Blessed Mother revealed herself to the local priest in a dream. She assured the pastor of the house’s authenticity and told him how it got there with the suggestion that it was in a safer place now. As proof of her story, she offered a cure for the priest’s long illness, and his health was restored at once. The building became a revered site right away and construction of a new protective church began, but it was not safe from the Muslims who were advancing into the Balkans.
The Holy House of Nazareth remained in Terrsato for three and a half years before it disappeared as quickly as it had arrived. Eyewitness reports say they saw the house in the sky, carried by angels. It was taken over the Adriatic Sea to Recanati, and once again, pilgrims were drawn. Unfortunately, highwaymen attacked and robbed many of them en route, and so the house was moved again. That time it came to rest on land owned by two squabbling brothers, and since they could not reach an agreement on any factor of the house’s being, it was gone again. For the third time in less than a year, it was placed perfectly on the ground without any foundation. It atands in Loreto, Italy today.
Thorough investigations both secular and religious have failed to prove any flaw in this story. There is a Basilica of the Annunciation in Nazareth said to be built over a cave where the angel Gabriel approached Mary. Any record of the house there has long been lost, but does not preclude its existence. Many cures have been documented at every locale where the Holy House sat. Since its arrival in Loreto in 1294, miracle record keeping has been incomplete but vast..
The word ‘hallucinate’ comes from a Latin root meaning to have one’s thoughts go astray. By its definition, a hallucination is not viewed by more than one person at a time, and far too many people saw the flying house to deny that something real happened. Defenders of the Holy House point to cathedral art work depicting the event, and more than a handful of popes have visited the site, declaring its authenticity. At least three of the pontiffs were cured of known ailments.
A basilica was built over the holy building again, and it remains one of the most visited sacred sites in the world. A sign on the basilica, which is a honeycomb of chapels and devotional spaces, says “The whole world has no place more sacred…for here was the Word made Flesh, and here was born the Virgin Mother.” Visitors include a who’s who of saints and famous people from all walks of life. Each one has a unique story, but one in particular bears out the holiness of this place and how it transferred to a man who awaits canonization.
Blessed Anthony Grassi was born in Fermo, Italy in 1592, and with rare exception, he never left the area during his long life. His father was in some way connected to the Oratorian Fathers at the hometown church and embraced the nearby Holy House in Loreto. He passed away when Anthony was ten and the boy grew closer to the priests, demonstrating a fantastic learning ability, and joining the order himself at the age of seventeen.
Grassi was on a pilgrimage to the Holy House when he was struck by lightning, left paralyzed, and fully expected to die. Within days he made a complete recovery and also lost some troubling ailments including chronic indigestion. The priest took the incident as a sign to dedicate himself to God. Witnesses to his later life say that he was completely preoccupied with Holy Mass, the Blessed Sacrament, and serving God always, oblivious to all else. He was a very quiet man, who capably ran the Fermo Oratory for the remainder of his life, and even when he himself was ill, found time to visit the infirmed and the poor. His compassion had no limits.
Whatever one believes about the Santuario della Santa Casa di Loreto (the Italian name) its presence has converted non-believers and changed lives. It is one page of the urgent message our Blessed Mother continues to bring to the earth, and it can be summed up in the simple words she spoke when her Son performed the miracle of the Wedding Feast at Cana: “Do whatever he tells you.” (John 2:5)
The Litany of the Blessed Virgin Mary aka the Litany of Loreto contains fifty designations that have been given to her. She showed Anthony Grassi how high God could hold one who is dedicated to the Lord like St Thérèse Lisieux or Francis of Assisi, both of whom visited the house (he, when it was still in Nazareth.) She gave a message of urgency to the children at Fatima, and she brought millions to the Lord as Our Lady of Guadalupe. She shows that God’s protection covers all who believe in him, and she shows us how to be true disciples of her Son.
Hail Mary, full of grace!